Chronicle: The Valleys Project

Contribution to Chronicle - Ffotogallery's 40th Anniversary Publication, December 2018

After the inaugural exhibition between 15 February and 31 March 1984, the next phase of the Valleys Project proved very different from the first, with Ffotogallery commissioning the photographers to make new bodies of work. Ffotogallery was one of the earliest independent photographic galleries in the UK to make such a commitment to photographers, allowing them the time and creative freedom to document their subjects within an overarching brief. The first commissions were awarded to Ron McCormick and recent Newport graduate Paul Reas. In addition, Rhymney Valley District Council commissioned John Davies to undertake his project, and the resulting exhibition took place early in 1985.

Later that year, Ffotogallery produced the publication ‘Valley Visitors’. Researched and written by Newport’s Ian Walker it provided an insight into key photographers who had previously worked in the Valleys and contextualised the new commissions. It remains a significant contribution to the understanding of the relationship between photography and the Valleys, and at the time also provided Ffotogallery with a counterpoint to the potentially contentious contribution to the Valleys Project by the famous photographer David Bailey, best known for his fashion and portraiture work.

The Valleys had continued to witness the effects of the government’s closure of mines throughout the region along with the economic fallout that it brought. Unemployment in the Valleys was high and three of the project’s photographers responded to this through what might be considered a traditional documentary approach, focusing on family life and community. Photographing people became increasingly prominent in the Valleys Project following the miners’ strike. Mike Berry, Francesca Odell and Roger Tiley’s black-and-white work took the form of photo-essays, with Berry focusing on the life of a former mining village at Glyncorrwg, Odell on the younger generation and their aspirations, and Tiley on miners, their families and supporters.

The fourth contributor to this phase, Peter Fraser, was, in terms of his photographic practice, at the opposite end of the scale to the others. His oblique colour images, which he believed acted as psychological triggers, were at the cutting edge of photographic work in Britain at the time. Ffotogallery was increasingly prepared to explore the forms of photography that were moving the boundaries of documentary photographic practice, and during 1986 had also exhibited the colour work of photographers Martin Parr (The Last Resort) and Paul Graham (Troubled Land).

In this period funds were made available by the British Council and Cardiff City Council to exhibit an edited version of the Valleys Project at the Kulturgemeinschaft in Stuttgart. Cardiff and Stuttgart had been twinned as cities since the 1950s, and both regions had faced similar economic effects of their rapidly shrinking coal industries. This international dimension to the Valleys Project contrasts with the relatively low level of interest in the project in the UK itself. The miners’ strike had been dominated the British media, and interest in the subject was exhausted. This, when coupled with the rapidly changing nature of creative photography in Britain during the period, reduced the appeal of a largely regional and traditionally executed documentary project. British photography was in the process of significant changes, and Christopher Coppock, Ffotogallery’s replacement for Susan Beardmore, who left in 1989 to become Director of Oriel Mostyn, proved keen to explore photography’s creative potential even further.

He instigated Something Must Be Done, Walter Waygood’s contribution to the Valleys Project, in October 1989. Coppock was interested in presenting contemporary photography outside a gallery context, with the result that Waygood produced an image for a billboard located at Dowlais Top in Merthyr Tydfil. The site was where Edward Malindine had photographed King Edward VIII touring a derelict steelworks in 1936 and where, on seeing the terrible conditions in Merthyr Tydfil, the King had declared: ‘Something must be done.’ Malindine’s photograph, originally published in the Daily Herald, had been included in the review of photographers featured in Ian Walker’s ‘Valley Visitors’.

In what would become the final contribution to the Valleys Project,
Port Talbot- based William Tsui was commissioned to photograph the communities of Abergwynfi and Blaengwynfi. For all that photography in Britain had been transformed during the 1980s, Tsui’s exhibition in 1990 was produced adopting a largely traditional photographic approach. His portrait of two small villages was made up of semi-formal portraits of the people living there. Although the Valleys Project would be re-presented by Ffotogallery in 1994, it ceased generating new work after William Tsui’s contribution.

Many other satellite activities have sprung up as a result of these major photographic initiatives, which have embraced historical research and archival gathering, workshops with local community groups, and courses and classes in schools exploring regional heritage and identity. Photographs from the project have been shown in a wide variety of venues: schools, community centres, art galleries and museums. Now that the Valleys Project is complete the collection forms an extraordinary portrait of areas in South Wales laden with history. All photographs made for the Valleys Project, over 450 in all, which form part of Ffotogallery’s archive are available for loan and research to schools, colleges and community groups.

© Paul Cabuts 2018
Cover/image courtesy Ffotogallery